Gap: The River Giveth

written by Sameer Das

The light of day was snatched from my eyes as I was thrown into frigid water. My breath was held tight as I tried to reach for what I thought was a lifeline above me. To my shock, I grabbed the life vest of another person who was also thrown into the river and was directly on top of me. After I continued to search blindly, I realized we were both under a paddle boat as well. I quickly kicked myself out from under the boat as the current yanked me down a river whose power I hadn’t fully reckoned until now. As soon as I swam out from underneath, a massive wave of water hit me in the face as I gasped for air. After a few coughs, I turned to the left and right of me to see my friends floating down the chaotic hydrology of our longest rapid of the day. I swam with all my might towards the nearest oar boat where a fellow student dunked me back in the water a few times before using all of her body weight as a lever to throw me onto her boat. I landed straight on my stomach and face as I coughed out water. And strangely, I couldn’t keep myself from smiling. 

Our paddle boat had flipped left over right in the middle of Gneiss Rapid and had dumped everyone and everything into the powerful Colorado River. While the old version of myself would have taken this experience as a divine signal to never get on a boat ever again in my life, I now suddenly felt the urge to do it again. Everyone in the paddle boat got out of the water safely and after a few minutes, we were laughing and talking as though nothing had happened. 

There were so many other new experiences that we grew to love, such as learning to use the Groover, a portable toilet system that we serviced ourselves. Or when we spent the night sleeping on the paddle boat, using life jackets and our dry storage bags to create a luxurious mattress for ourselves. Or when we paddled over Class III+/IV- Rapids. Or when we created environmentally responsible campfires along the river that thawed our freezing feet and hands from the day of rafting. Or when we found quicksand and played games trying to jump in it and get ourselves stuck up to our shins. Or having group readings of the Emerald Mile, a story centered on the fastest trip in history down the Grand Canyon. Or when we jumped off the boats and went for a swim in the Colorado River.

We also expanded our knowledge by developing a deeper sense of place than we already had from our incredible, new experiences. We learned that the land where we were standing on did not in fact originally belong to “us,” but the indigenous Hualapai people who had inhabited the land before US land management shifted land ownership rights away from them. In our quick classes on hydrology while floating down the river, we learned how these incredible forces of nature formed in the first place. Our river guides, a group of four incredible students from Prescott College, also fostered an inquisitive mindset that helped us notice natural wonders we haven’t seen this entire trip: a big horned sheep spotting and uniquely shaped bush cacti, among many other wildlife forms fed our curiosities. We built up our base knowledge on geology by learning about the gorgeous rock formations around us, such as the 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist formation we saw multiple times. As we went downstream over the course of the trip, we were going down through older and older rock layers almost every day. We further developed our leadership by each getting a chance to become paddle captain of the paddle boat and by learning to row the oar boats by ourselves.

The attitude of the group was brave, inquisitive, and persevering throughout the entire trip. Our friendships have grown tighter, and as a result we’ve become more efficient as an overall unit. It’s incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by such strong and intelligent individuals on a daily basis. On top of the experiential and educational components, my peers have been a key source of fuel for personal growth. 

It’s been an incredible journey thus far, and the growth we have experienced as individuals and a team has been unlike anything I ever expected in such a time frame. Before this semester, I had never gone camping before and hadn’t hiked longer than a mile or two. The growth I’ve witnessed so far has been beyond anything I could achieve in a classroom alone, and the experiential value has been priceless- I realize on a daily basis how lucky I am to be a part of this.

The scale of force in our surroundings during the expedition trumped the anthropocentric environmental ethic that has perpetuated the common American culture I’ve grown up in. The combination of these experiences with the classes we have taken has made me realize that natural systems are more powerful than I initially thought and that biocentrism can help me make better sense of the world around me. Before we left on water the first day, one of our river guides mentioned the old adage “The river giveth and the river taketh away.” The give and take of the river, in a literal and metaphorical sense, has taught me lessons that I will hold onto for the rest of my life. And in a larger sense, the give and take of this entire semester has reminded me that all of this is not an end in itself. Instead, it’s a new beginning.